Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Once again, another sterling, profanity-fueled nugget of wisdom from Chuck Wendig:

Ask the Writer: “How Do I Get Published?”

Short answer: he doesn’t answer the question. Why? Well, you can read for yourself to learn why, but if you must know NOW, Chuck’s post is a rant against the prevalence of “writers” attending writer’s conferences solely for the fact of learning how to get an agent and get your work published. So what’s the problem, then? The problem is these questions are being asked by “writers” who haven’t even finished, or can’t even be bothered, to complete a manuscript. Questions about the end result, rather than questions on how to improve your craft.

I think of this as putting the cart before the horse.

I touched upon this a few blogs ago. I’m focused right now on finishing the product. I’m not at the point yet where I can begin the process of finding the right agent, or firing off the Greatest Query Letter Ever Written. Writing comes first. I wouldn’t bother asking where’s the nearest Porsche dealership if I don’t know how to drive, would I? Well, apparently some people would.

To me, asking questions on how to get published, without having even written a single word, smacks of yet another misguided attempt by people to make a quick buck. Remember the whole “house flipping” craze; people buying dilapidated homes at 1/5th the price so they can renovated it and put it back on the market and turn a big profit, right? Yeah, well, how well did that work for a lot of people? Trust me, there’s still a few of those “flipped” houses still sitting in my area, unflipped and unsold. Why? Because those who invested in run-down homes learned very quickly that flipping a house isn’t as easy as Ty Pennington makes it out to be. It’s hard work, it’s back-breaking work, and unless you really the intricacies of getting a house up to code, the work’s not worth it.

We’re reminded of the self-publishing successes of Amanda Hocking and (*barf*) E.L. James, and that leads a lot of us thinking, “How do I get in on this motherlode?”As this article in the Guardian suggests, going the DIY route might not be so profitable after all. And if DIY isn’t going to rake in the millions you’re hoping to earn, then you better figure out how to get either one of the Big Publishing Houses or an indie press to publish your work. And this kind of mentality reminds me, again, of another cash grab. YOU CAN MAKE MILLIONS BY SELF-PUBLISHING YOUR NOVEL! Hooray!


(Let me pause for a moment here: I’m not bashing the self-publishing route. Several of my friends who are writers have taken this route at early stages of their careers. Just like a band that releases their albums on their own DIY label, many writers take this approach simply to get published. Again: to get published. Not to make millions. Or even hundreds of thousands. One of my friends told me he made enough money from self-publication just to pay for an editorNone of them are basking in glory or laughing all the way to the bank. Many of them have progress to where they’re represented by an agent, and have had their novels published. They know the process. I have many questions to ask them, but now is not the time.)

A writer I know very well told me the story recently of her guest appearance at a writer’s conference. She was invited to talk about the editing process, and after her talk, she penciled in 30 minutes for a Q&A session. The first question asked? “How do I get published?” When she informed the audience member that her question, although legit, wasn’t really appropriate for this session, nearly 3/4ths of the audience got up and left! Later, she overheard this, from a paying attendee: “This conference is a waste. How am I supposed to make money from writing?”

Really? You paid hundreds of dollars to attend a writer’s conference simply to learn how to get published? What about learning how to make your writing better? Survive the editing process? Huh?

I’m generally extremely mistrustful of anyone who undertakes an artistic endeavor solely for the purpose of making money. Listen, I don’t need Sally Struthers asking me, in her high-pitched, gin-soaked whine, if I want to make money. Sure I do, but I have more realistic goals.

What I really want is an ISBN number attached to something I’ve written, something that went through a painful yet exhilarating process, a process that questioned my sanity, and tried to break my spirit, a process that went through revision after revision after revision, and countless rejections and an agent that believed in me and a publisher that took a chance.

But first, I need to finish writing this goddamned novel!


(I also realize this slight diatribe seems somewhat hypocritical coming from someone that hasn’t been published yet. Go on, slam me. This comes across as bitchy. OK, fine. This is my corner of WordPressville, and I can be bitchy all I want.)

12 thoughts on “Putting the Cart Before the Horse

  1. you couldn’t be more spot on in every area, including indie publishing. I went the DIY route because I was hoping to build up a fan base before I started looking for a traditional publisher. I’m regularly in the forums on Kindle direct and the biggest complaint from indies? Why isn’t my book selling? Writing a book isn’t a get rich quick scheme. Its a labor of love. and if someone thinks they can write a crappy novel and make a million, then their probably better off just buying a bunch of lottery tickets, because their chances in both areas are exactly the same. Nonexistent.

    Excellent post. 🙂

    • That’s the reason why I cringe when I read articles about the few authors that have made money from self-publishing: suddenly everyone thinks they can do it, too! Suddenly everyone in the late ’90s was a stock market expert, remember that?

  2. “This is my corner of WordPressville, and I can be bitchy all I want.”

    Kudos to that. Of what interest is a blog if it’s not a reflection of honest feelings?

    Dynamite analogy with the house flipping scenario. Self-publishing has become popular enough to earn it’s place in the Pantheon of Get-Rich-Quick schemes. In fact, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t what got me interested in serious writing in the first place. A year ago, I began to hear about these success stories. “You mean I can churn out some quick stories in my spare time and quit my day job?” I thought. “I can spell pretty well and I like to read. Piece of cake!”

    But I discovered some interesting things along the way that changed my perspective. If you can’t write well, your chances of striking gold are damn near zero. If you don’t have an interesting story, those chances were entering the realm of negative numbers. Publishing garbage may actually leave you in red, if not in paper money, certainly in opportunity cost.

    During this adventure I learned that self-publishing is easy. Doing it right is not. Painting a portrait of someone is easy… but there’s a big gap between a first grader’s rendition and Leonardo da Vinci’s rendition.

    • After reading this over, I felt like I needed to expand on describing my self-discovery. At some point, I realized (and am still realizing) that writing was something I needed in my life. It stopped being a path to riches and self-employment.

      To put it another way, I feel like I’ve experienced my own character arc. I came into writing thinking I wanted one thing and ended up realizing something else was more important. Sharing ideas and stories that get me excited in the hopes that it gets others excited. Hearing about someone else being moved by a written record of my imagination is the greatest form of payment I could ever receive.

    • The whole mentality behind making shit-tons of money via the self-publishing route seems to defeat the whole purpose of writing. Writing is about discovery, not making coin. Simple as that.

    • I’ve seen those advertised. Instead of a query letter, now I have to narrow my pitch to a 3-minute sound bite and hope an agent and editor will be interested? No thanks.

      That’s such a huge disservice to everyone, I think.

  3. Did you read this article:

    Here’s what Junot had to say about publishing:

    ‘That struggle to see the world is what he’s worried is missing in young writers. MFA students nowadays, he says, are writing with an eye toward agents and advances; they’re looking at the work as a tool for acclamation, which means they don’t want to make mistakes. But writing isn’t the same as building a violin. The errors shouldn’t be considered misfires. “I could feel myself when I was working, trying to do something because I wanted somebody to give me a hug. As soon as I felt that I moved as far away as possible.”‘

    (This is Bats from OxnardShores. I deleted and moved my blog again. LOL.)

    • Hey Bats,

      Yeah, I know it’s you.

      I did read that profile on Grantland. Excellent profile on Junot Diaz, by the way, the best one I’ve read on him recently. I would have never thought a profile like that to come from Grantland (one of my favorite sites, by the way), but that’s all good. I took what he said about getting an MFA to heart, because I’ve heard the same concern: too many students applying for admission to an MFA program simply because it’s a goal to achieve, and not a creative journey.

      Which is why I’m leaning towards not applying to an MFA program, in spite of what it can do for me, career-wise.

  4. Chuck Wendig is great. I think having an end goal in mind can help someone better envision how to get there, but they shouldn’t lose sight of all the work it will take in the meantime. For example, I do triathlons and early in the season, I register for all the ones I want to do. That’s my end goal: to finish a triathlon in a decent time. But in the weeks leading up to the triathlon I have to train a lot. Maybe this analogy would be a good answer to the question “How do I get published?”

    • That’s a great running analogy, Rachel. When I started taking running more seriously, I signed up for a few 5Ks. Then a few 10ks. In 6 months time, I want to run my first half-marathon. Who knows, the NYC marathon in November 2013?

      I think it’s good to have an eye towards publishing, of course, but to me, the writing is the hardest part; I see a lot of “If I write this, then I can get published,” as if there’s a paint-by-numbers approach to publishing. No, far from it. There’s a lot of hard work and sweat and doubt that comes before publishing. Some writers I know who’ve had their works published will tell you publishing’s the easy part.

      • Absolutely, do the NYC Marathon!

        I’m in the process of being published so I’m not sure I can say it’s been “easy,” just different than the actual writing. I find myself writing new things and focusing more on trying to market myself and the book. It’s a more business approach but still can be creative.

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